Jonathan “Jon” Abrams loved what he saw and bought what he loved. That simple directive guided the breathtaking art collection of the Albuquerque art maven, a recently retired cardiologist, awardwinning University of New Mexico professor of medicine, curator, and friend of the arts.
Relaxing at home, however, in his suburban Albuquerque neighborhood, with a lifetime of acquisitions in every part of the house, including a Eugene Newmann painting over the fireplace and a Ken Saville skeleton sculpture in front of it, Abrams acknowledges he only reluctantly thinks of himself as a collector.
“I grew to love art because my wife, Fay, and I knew so many talented artists,” says Abrams. “It was just logical to take a piece home every now and then. Fay had a strong art background, and I had had a course or two in art history. We used to go to shows together and without saying anything to each other pick the same favorites every time. “Affection and a true appreciation for art grew slowly on my part until I realized I had become a collector, but it took an even longer time to recognize that art had evolved from being one of my interests outside of medicine to a near obsession.”
Abrams’s wildly eclectic collection blurs the line between “art” and “craft” and includes mixed-media works by Larry Bell; prints by Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Kiki Smith; a painting by Roy DeForest; and sculpture by Tom Waldron and photographer Tom Barrow. The collection also boasts ceramist Robert Arneson’s version of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man.
It was Abrams’s interest in sculpture, in fact, that led him to suggest starting an outdoor sculpture garden at the Albuquerque Museum when he was a board member of the institution’s Foundation. (The museum now exhibits a major collection of regional and national sculp-ture.) Abrams also founded the Contemporary Art Society of New Mexico, which recently celebrated its 20th year; and co-founded the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center Art Collection, currently comprising more than 1,800 works. In addition, the doctor established the University Hospital Fifth Floor Gallery on the North Campus to display changing exhibitions of works by contemporary artists.
“Now that I’m retired and have all but stopped collecting,” Abrams reflects, “those institutional projects have taken on a life of their own and will continue.”
Back at home, a ranch-style house that wasn’t specifically designed to showcase art, Abrams enjoys storytelling through the hanging of objects. He chose, for instance, to hang his Motherwell and Frankenthaler prints together in the entry hall as a little joke about the once-married couple who later divorced. (The Abramses, too, divorced, several years ago, but both report that they still share common interests through their two daughters and the collection.)
Also in the art-packed entry hall of the doctor’s home are one of Waldron’s steel sculptures in a biomorphic wedge shape and a miniature glass sculpture by Bell. The living and dining rooms feature sculpture and paintings by Allen “Skip” Graham, a bowl by Rick Dillingham, and several hydrology-inspired light fixtures made from salt-cedar stems by Basia Irland.
In a corner of the kitchen is an ordinary chair elaborately festooned with toy automobiles and photographs of cars attached with construction adhesive by Barrow, an artist known for his sense of irony and ability to work with disparate materials and imagery; there’s also DeForest’s mixed-media painting of an impaled heart, a tiny man wearing a cowboy hat, and a largetongued dog in a spatially fractured landscape, all surrounded by a hand-carved openwork frame embellished with two small human heads. “We bought that painting without a frame, so I wrote DeForest a letter asking if we could buy a frame from him,” Abrams recalls. “He sent us that beautiful frame, no questions asked.”
Like his collection, Abrams’s personal and professional lives have lines that are sometimes blurred: when he asked New York artist Jim Dine to design the cover of a medical journal focused on cardiology, for instance. Dine accepted the commission, creating one of his signature black-and-white heart renderings. But the artist gave away the original drawing before Abrams could buy it for his personal collection.
“It was my fault that I missed that one. I was so thrilled that Dine agreed to do it, I forgot to ask him about selling the original to me,” Abrams laments. “He gave it to his wife as a present instead.”
Early in Abrams’s professional life, he was assigned to the Army Medical Corps during the Vietnam War and stationed in Albuquerque in 1968. It was the beginning of an evolving obsession with the arts of New Mexico that neither Jon nor Fay could have imagined.
Fay recalls going crazy as a military wife on the Sandía Army Base, so she enrolled in the MFA program at UNM. “My painting instructor was Frederick Hammersley; I started at the top,” she says. “Porcelain master Jim Srubek was in the ceramics department. Many people in the art department back then were open to introducing us to everyone.”
Six years after moving to the Duke City, Fay opened the Mariposa Gallery in Albuquerque’s Old Town, which specialized in fine crafts made exclusively by New Mexico artists. She operated it for 31 years before selling the business. With a partner she also ran a licensed Mariposa branch gallery in Santa Fe from 1989 to 1996. “I don’t recognize the difference between fine art and fine craft,” states Fay. “I don’t think you can have one without the other. Great art is always well crafted, and great artists have highly developed basic skills.”
Artist and craftsman Richard Hogan, who has been represented by Linda Durham Contemporary Art for nearly three decades, met Jon and Fay in